M.J. Devonshire had to backpedal a bit, but once he caught Rhode Island punter Davey Schaum-Bartocci’s punt, he appreciated the space he was afforded. He knew his blockers promised a chance, and even as he backed up to field the punt, he thought he might have a bit of time.
As Devonshire looked up once he fielded the punt, his backpedaling halted right around the Pitt 15-yard line, he looked and saw that his blocker did indeed have their blocks covered. He didn’t need to make anyone miss, he simply needed to follow his blockers. Once Devonshire turned the corner, watching Jahvante Royal seal the punter, there was just green grass ahead.
“Everything was just quiet, and it was like the pick six, it just opened up,” Devonshire said Saturday. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m looking at the student section again.’”
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It wasn’t an easy punt return touchdown per se, the 82-yard punt return coming courtesy of excellent blocking and a quick returner with the ball in his hands, and Devonshire made his touches count.
Devonshire played 50 snaps against Rhode Island, making the start at cornerback (his second of the season), and he allowed just three catches for 17 yards on seven targets. After a tough matchup against Tennessee’s Cedric Tillman in Week 2, Devonshire has bounced back with two strong showings against Western Michigan and Rhode Island.
And with both an interception and punt returned for a touchdown this season, he’s the first Pitt player since Darrelle Revis in 2006 to do so in a single season. It’s an elite company to join, but it’s even sweeter for an Aliquippa graduate in Devonshire.
“It means a lot,” Devonshire said Saturday. “I was not aware (that I joined Revis) until after the game. I guess it doesn’t happen often, so it means a lot to watch him do it. He paved the way; I just follow it.”
It was also out of character for Devonshire to return the punt. He hasn’t been the primary punt returner this season, but when he raced the game-winning interception back against West Virginia to open the season, he saw the opportunity that was laid out before him.
“All summer I’ve been thinking about it,” Devonshire said after the WVU win. “I watched Darrelle’s punt return. I was like, ‘Man, how crazy would it be?’ I told (Aliquippa alum and Pitt backup quarterback) Eli (Kosanovich), if I could run up the same sideline, do the same spin move, score a touchdown, like a crazy play?”
Devonshire was one of the best punt returners in WPIAL history when he was at Aliquippa, but Konata Mumpfield won that role for Pitt this season. Devonshire said he’s fine with that. He just needed to find another way to make an impact.
“I kind of just wanted to do what those guys did,” Devonshire said. “I think I did something.” And after his punt return touchdown against Rhode Island, matching Revis through just four games this season, it’s a sign that Devonshire is ready and willing to fill the role going forward.
The punt return, the first opportunity of the game for Pitt, was nerve-wracking. But as he looked up into the crowd to find his mother staying composed in the stands, he knew he couldn’t let his own nerves dictate the opportunity before him.
“As soon as it was third down when we were on defense, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s coming up. You gotta get a stop here to get your chance.’ So, I finally got back there, and it was just deep breaths, deep breaths. I looked over at my mom (in the stands) and she was calm. I was like, ‘Alright, she’s not even panicking so I need to be calm.’”
It resulted in an 82-yard punt return touchdown, setting Pitt up for a 45-24 win over Rhode Island on the day, but it wasn’t a perfect day for the defense. Blown assignments allowed Rhode Island to score a couple of touchdowns on a day in which the Rams’ offense racked up just 286 yards of offense. And Devonshire is focused on cleaning up those mistakes going forward.
“There’s some things we always need to clean up, we’re always looking to get better and that’s a day-by-day thing in college football,” Devonshire said. “Those guys are on scholarship, and they work hard too.
“Just run fits, us on the edge, we gotta do better locking our guys. We gotta really sit in there and just play defense.”
While the coaching staff is harder upon the team than anyone, even hammering home teaching points following last season’s 77-7 win over New Hampshire, Devonshire appreciates the dedication. The coaching staff expects perfection, as does the Pitt secondary. Whether it’s shooting for the moon, the stars or whatever, it’s the expectation. And Devonshire is his unit’s No. 1 supporter.
“Just being the best,” Devonshire said. “I tell them all the time. I go up to them before every game, and I let them know they’re the best in the country. Marquis and A.J. are the best two in the country, nobody’s better. Playing like that and believing it is the biggest thing. If you can play with that confidence and just know that nobody’s better than you, you’re gonna go a long way in this game.”
Marquis Williams, A.J. Woods, Rashad Battle and Devonshire have comprised the cornerback unit this season, and while there have plenty of learning moments, it’s a unit that has grown constantly each week. And Devonshire is constantly striving to be a cornerback in the same vein as Revis.